Dirty Money Once Again

Published: March 12, 2010 - 16:50 Updated: March 12, 2010 - 16:52

Panchayat elections in Rajasthan is a transparent indicator of the new political trend in India: cash-fixed grassroots democracy
Rahul Ghai Bikaner

The recently concluded Panchayat elections in Rajasthan have been a grotesque spectacle of unabashed display of wealth and dubious activity by political leaders masquerading as harbingers of wellbeing and justice at the grassroots. The two month roll out of local democracy for 32 districts covering 237 panchayat samities and 9,184 village panchayats was completed in three phases in a major state where the three-tier panchayati raj system was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru on October 2, 1959, at Naugaur. The most important feature was the open display of vulgar money. Clearly, the dirty money trends set in the parliamentary and assembly elections are catching up on ground zero, despite the persistence of mass poverty, caste hierarchy and unemployment all around.

The attraction of fat profits through the NREGS funds has fuelled the ambition of many to file their nominations for sarpanch (panchayat head) in village gram panchayats. In what would have been the most intense multi-candidate election till date, many candidates have spent huge sums exceeding reportedly Rs 25 lakh per candidate, while most have spent around Rs 4/5 lakhs each. In most panchayats there were at least three to four candidates contesting for sarpanch. In Parwa panchayat in Nokha, there were 22 women candidates for the post of sarpanch; in another, there were as many as 18 candidates contesting among 1,800 voters.

A cursory glance at the profile of those contesting would reveal the deep wedges the political economy has created among brothers, mother and daughter-in-law, and other intimate family ties. Prosperous households had fielded two or three of their family members, contesting elections from different places. Even those living in towns were keen to contest the sarpanch elections. Considering that under NREGS, a whopping Rs 9,500 crore will be spent in the state in the current fiscal year, this excitement makes supreme business sense. The budgets of each panchayat would surely go up several times in the days to come.

Many of those contesting have been 'successful beneficiaries' in the 'development enterprise' of the last 15 years. They have acquired the trappings: land, farm houses, fleets of vehicles, among other objects of conspicuous consumption. Feudal pomp and show, and prosperity hence earned, is used rather lavishly to sponsor feasting for the pre-election wooing of voters. Sumptuous feasting for days on, lure of job cards, cash and cheque payments, free joy rides in fleets of vehicles gliding in the sand dunes, are some of the key features of a typical election campaign of a rich sarpanch candidate. Stark display of solidarity and kinship are invoked: caste, community, family genealogies reveal the realpolitik of the political culture here, and future governance taking shape in full public view.

The panchayat elections are times of heightened social activity that bring to the fore the travails of a nascent civil society coming to terms with the tyranny of tradition as well as winds of change espoused by the democratic polity that is beginning to take roots in the interiors of the desert state. From Bajju, an interior village in the Kolayat Panchayat Samiti in Bikaner, the road takes a right turn, upstream the Indira Gandhi canal, and glides across the undulating terrain of Pawarwala and Mankasar to take a further turn westwards. After travelling on a serpentine road for 15 km in and out of small sand dunes, we reach Bhaluri.

The Bhaluri panchayat is spread in 40 sq km and has around 7,000 voters. The contest is between the raiya rajputs, raiya Muslims and 'oustees from Pakistan', Indians who settled here from across the border. The intense triangular contest in which each party tried to woo the voters in many places is a sign that the culture of democratic polity with its associated calculations of party politics and gains and losses has struck basic roots. Significantly, there has been a transition from the uncontested feudal terrain that had mostly supported BJP in the past, to an assertion of voices by all the major demographic groups - the raiya Muslims and Hindus, the allotees and 'Pak oustees'. Even the wards were not without their expressions of small dissents at the village level. In Bhaluri, among 15 ward panchs, only ward no. 8, 4, and 9 could elect their candidates unanimously, while the rest had 12 elections.

Security forces were deployed, there was beefed up security on the international border, and the voter turn out was 20 per cent more than the last elections. There were many panchayats where the electorate turn out was more than 70 to 90 per cent, including in sensitive places like Bhaluri.

Ever since the commencement of panchayat elections five decades back, the organised prevalence of tyranny in silencing dissenting voices has been complete. The unquestioned authority of the thakurs of Barsalpur patta had reigned supreme in the pastoral desert bastion of feudal lords and nomadic chieftains. Among other changes, these elections saw the coming in of a new generation of leadership from among the 'Pak oustees'. They have deftly steered a successful entry by the Jat-dominated Congress in the BJP- dominated Rajput bastion, as increased the authority of the maulvis who called for consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of Jannat, supported by Nabi, who subsequently won the sarpanch elections in Bhaluri.

In Bandhali, Bhaluri, Bikendri, Bijeri, Jaggasar, Dandkalan, Mumowala, Sammewla, Deli Talai, Parbati, Adoori, and Pugal, people can be seen all around, huddled and squatting in open sunshine discussing enthusiastically the fate of the candidates for the coming elections. There is a glaring paradox that catches your eye in the misty desert mornings. This is a chronicle which spreads like a folk narrative across the arid landscape.

As people start to congregate near a hutment, one can hear individual voices of disillusionment and apathy. Their cynical gaze at the passing trailers overloaded with limestone reveals another side of public life that has been decisively smothered and appropriated by the vested interests in power, the nexus of local politicians, police and powerful feudal and other lobbies. Many voters pensively pointed out at the utter mockery of a pristine institution like the panchayat; how these elections have become an ugly and unabashed display of money and opulence earned at their expense. They scoff at it. And yet, as many villagers said, they are so utterly helpless in the face of awesome societal pressures that just would not let them abstain from voting even if they wanted to.

Indeed, behind the facade of sumptuous carnivals of feasting, lies eternal despair, anger and anguish. The area has been reeling under an acute water crisis. All through the route the telling signs of a creeping drought are evident in the shrinkage of acreage area of sowing in the fields - only one fourth in most of the land. Prospects are so bleak and feeble that people just don't want to talk about it. The water crisis has taken roots in the total silence of the people on this issue. It is this despair that collectively translates into a mob-like participation in the elections. That the sarpanch elections are going to be like this, basically seems fait accompli, so claimed many. 


Panchayat elections in Rajasthan is a transparent indicator of the new political trend in India: cash-fixed grassroots democracy
Rahul Ghai Bikaner

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